The tradition of dog hunting in North Florida clashes with growing development. Frustrated property owners want to ban the sport on private land that once was open.
By TAMARA LUSH
Published May 16, 2004
MARIANNA - John Daniel loves everything about his 800-acre property: the cabin overlooking a tranquil pond, the wild turkeys scampering in the brush, the whoosh of wind through the tall pine trees.
But Daniel dreads deer hunting season.
From October to February each year, the calm is shattered by barking hounds chasing deer through Daniel's property and hunters tearing up and down nearby roads in noisy trucks.
Like dozens of North Florida land owners, Daniel has complained to law enforcement and state wildlife officers about the dogs and the hunters who chase them.
But Daniel and other property owners say their complaints made them targets of retribution, threats and even arson. Some even say that deer innards are left in their driveways.
They blame dog hunters.
"They don't care about other people's property rights," said Daniel, who says his home burned just days after pressing charges against a dog hunter in 2001. "They need to leave us alone. I've had enough."
Daniel and others have pleaded with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to tighten dog hunting rules, a move hunters fear will lead to an outright ban.
The hunters say their sport is a cherished, old Florida tradition passed down over generations.
"By and large, people do take care of the sport," said Martin Sewell, head of the County Line dog hunting club in Calhoun and Gull counties. "There are a few bad apples, as in any organization. But some of the problems are grossly exaggerated."
The conflicts between hunters and property owners have grown in recent years because of booming development that has brought newcomers and a clash of cultures.
It's the Old South vs. the New Florida.
"We realize the state is changing," said David Meehan, a Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission member from St. Petersburg. "People are now living so close to where the hunters want to hunt."
Hunting land shrinks
Hunting with dogs began in Europe several centuries ago and was brought to this country with early settlers.
It's been North Florida tradition for as long as anyone can remember. Dog hunters turned their trained packs of hounds loose in the thick Florida wilderness, where it was dangerous and unruly for people to tread. The dogs would chase deer for miles, and when the deer ran into a clearing, the hunters would shoot.
The hunters had few problems with landowners, mostly because there were few people. Timber and paper companies owned tens of thousands of acres of forest, and leased the land cheaply to dog hunters.
But in the past two decades, timber companies have sold tracts of land, leaving less for hunters to lease.
Only about seven states allow dog hunting. Of those, regulations have shrunk the sport in several counties.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has tried to regulate dog hunting after receiving several dozen complaints. In 1998, the commission instituted the "Hunter Responsibility Rule," in which dog hunters must seek permission to hunt on private property. Anyone who allows their dogs to run on private property is subject to a $500 fine and jail time.
But property owners say the rule favors hunters because landowners must catch the dogs in the act.
That's nearly impossible for Ed Kaminski, a landowner with multiple sclerosis.
The Kaminskis moved from Texas to Jackson County 10 years ago. They bought 40 acres and reveled in the small-town feel of Marianna, about an hour north of Panama City. Ed proudly points out that there are more dirt roads in Jackson County than any other in the state.
"This was our dream, I guess," said his wife, Mary Beth. "We like our privacy. That's why we're here."
They built a modest home and four miles of trails to cruise the forest on a golf cart.
But it wasn't long before the Kaminskis had problems with the local hunters.
Dogs ran across their property, hunters blocked roads leading to their home and used the Kaminskis' private trails to look for deer.
When they spoke to the dog hunters, Mrs. Kaminski got this response: "You had a lot of nerve to be building in the middle of where we hunt."
Roofing nails were left in their driveway and their mailbox was shattered. Some hunters glowered at them at the post office.
Ed Kaminski shot one of the dogs on his property, the only way he said he could get the dog's tag to identify its owner. The hunter pressed animal cruelty charges, but the state attorney refused to prosecute.
The Kaminskis want the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to change the dog hunting laws before this upcoming hunting season.
"I think that this is like terrorism," said Mary Beth Kaminski. "The dictionary definition of terrorism is violence, threats and intimidation."
Handful of unruly hunters
Rusty McKeithan, president of the Florida Dog Hunters Association, concedes there have been conflicts in Jackson, Washington and Gadsden counties.
"Some hunters do not understand that it is 2004 and not 1904," McKeithan said. McKeithan, 45, has been dog hunting most of his life. He says a handful of hunters are ruining the sport for everyone. "They've given dog hunting a bad name," he said.
One property owners' group has filed suit against the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, claiming that because the state owns the land and allows dog hunters to use it, the state has a responsibility to keep dogs off private property.
David Youngblood organized the 600-member Northwest Florida Rural Property Owners Association to press the case with the conservation commission. He's been fighting for 10 years, without much success.
Youngblood said he has little hope the commission will fix the problem this summer. The commission will hold public workshops May 26 and 27 in Marianna and Lake City and consider a pilot program requiring dog hunters to register in Jackson, Washington and Gadsden counties.
Youngblood said there's only one way to solve the problem: ban dog hunting near private property.
Commission chairman Rodney Barreto of Miami agrees.
"I think we've got a handful of unruly dog hunters who believe they have the right to trample upon people's personal property," Barreto says. "We need really stringent rules or we need to ban it."
McKeithan and other hunters are worried. "We're going to be like the bear," he said. "We'll be lucky to survive."
Vandals not shy
John Daniel, 61, says he is a life-long hunter. He was born and raised in Panama City. He recently retired from his law practice there.
Daniel lives near timber company land leased to local hunting clubs. In 2001, he saw a pack of dogs on his land. He caught one of the dogs and got the owners' name off the tag. The hunters were charged with violating the Hunter Responsibility rule, a misdemeanor, and one of them pleaded guilty.
Two weeks later, two gates leading to Daniel's property were broken. The home on Daniel's property was burned down. The fire marshal said the cause of the fire was undetermined, yet in his report, noted that the broken gates were suspicious. No one was arrested.
Daniel rebuilt his cabin and met others whose property had been vandalized, including a retired couple in Chipley whose home was burned after altercations with dog hunters.
Meanwhile, Daniel has spent tens of thousands of dollars on security cameras and surveillance gear.
That didn't help in March when someone set a small fire on the outskirts of Daniel's property. About eight acres were burned.
Daniel said he had just complained to several timber companies, three of which promptly revoked hunting leases. The companies also had fires on their property the same day as Daniel's fire, sheriff's reports show. Jackson County Sheriff John McDaniel, however, said he is skeptical Daniel's fire was arson.
Another time, Daniel said, some hunters refused to let his daughter and son-in-law leave the property after his son-in-law, an FBI agent, shot a hunting dog on Daniel's land.
The shooting is under investigation by a special prosecutor because the Jackson County prosecutor is a member of the local dog hunting club.
"I have nothing to gain by running on other people's property," said Blaine Collins, whose dog was shot.
Daniel realizes his relationship with the dog hunters is swiftly deteriorating. But he's not giving up. He plans to rally his neighbors, offer rewards for the arrest of the people who set the fires and attend as many state commission meetings as possible.
He's even worked with some dog hunters on the proposed rules.
"I'm going to stay here as long as I'm breathing," Daniel said.